On This Day 20 Years Ago, The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith Passed Away

Remembering Britain's biggest wrestling icon 20 years on
15:35, 18 May 2022

On 18th May 2002, ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith passed away from a heart attack at the age of just 39. No other professional wrestler has captured the imagination of UK wrestling fans like the Bulldog. His popularity helped take public perception of sports entertainment in this country from smoky halls and ill-fitting leotards to a glitzy, global spectacle. 

After an early career spent in British, Japanese and Canadian rings, Smith joined the then-WWF in 1984. Teaming up with cousin Dynamite Kid as The British Bulldogs, the Lancashire-born superstar was an instant success. A series of classic matches against The Hart Foundation, comprised of Smith’s brothers-in-law Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart, helped establish the Bulldogs as firm crowd favourites.  

The balance of the team was perfect. The smaller, high-flying Dynamite contrasted perfectly with the big but athletic powerhouse in Davey. It helped that the WWF was on-board with the combo, booking them to look like the stars they were. A star-turn alongside Ozzy Osbourne at WrestleMania II was a particular highlight of their early years.

This made it all the stranger when the pairing departed the company in 1988. Dynamite walked out after a dispute with management and Smith followed him out of the door in a show of solidarity. The Bulldogs returned to Japan, where they were a popular ‘gaijin’ act, meaning foreigner. The partnership disintegrated due to personal issues between the cousins, and Smith eventually struck out on his own.

WWF were extremely keen on Smith as a solo act, free from having to deal with his often-fiery cousin. Davey was repackaged as the definitive British Bulldog, and feuded with giant muscle-man The Warlord and the legendary Mr Perfect. During this period, Sky television launched in the UK. WWF wrestling was a major part of Rupert Murdoch’s initial satellite offering. 

Fans weaned on the World of Sport era of British wrestling were taken aback. While the likes of Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki fought in dark theatres while sporting physiques like your Dad, the WWF’s superstars competed in legendary venues like Madison Square Garden and boasted chiselled, albeit chemically-enhanced, physiques. It was like night and day, and a whole country was captivated.

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The Bulldog was the missing piece of the puzzle in the WWF’s British invasion. With a homegrown star to merchandise, the company hit untold heights in this country. A genuine cultural fad to rival the Teenage Mutant “Hero” Turtles (as they were known on our censor-happy Isle) or Gladiators, the WWF was everywhere. The iconic Hasbro action figures, sticker albums, magazines and candy littered the shelves of every Woolworths you could find. The Bulldog was front and centre on all this merchandise, as well as being a fixture of the UK talk show and children’s TV circuit. With the Premier League still a few months away from fruition, Bulldog was the UK’s premiere superstar athlete.

After the European Rampage Tour and Battle Royal At The Albert Hall were box office smashes with Bulldog in the headline slot, the WWF decided to think bigger. For the first time, a mainstream pay-per-view event would be staged outside of North America. In August of 1992, the WWF would present SummerSlam from Wembley Stadium.

Despite the card featuring a WWF Championship match between the Ultimate Warrior and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, the company took the unprecedented step of closing out a show with an Intercontinental title contest. The reason was clear. Bulldog would challenge Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart for the title in the main event of a show that would have been impossible without him.

In front of over 80,000 fans under the famous twin towers, Bulldog contested the best match of his career with Hart. The bout makes for scintillating viewing even now. An intoxicating blend of atmosphere, psychology, technique and storytelling. The battle is brought up annually when talk turns to the best matches in the history of SummerSlam, and with good reason. Wrestling’s summer spectacular may never have played host to better than this.

The bout ended in the only way it could, with Bulldog heroically triumphing and lifting the Intercontinental belt high in front of his adoring public. Nobody present at the time knew this would be as good as it got for both Bulldog and the WWF fad in the UK.

The company’s decline in popularity may or may not be directly attributable to Smith’s November 1992 firing, but it seems likely the two are connected. Bulldog was reportedly let go when it was found that he was purchasing Human Growth Hormone from a doctor in England. 

Smith’s status as a huge money draw in the UK did not go unnoticed in the world of wrestling. WWF’s main rival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) signed up the Wigan star in 1993. Capitalising on his vast fanbase, the company ran The Real Event Tour across the UK with Smith as the star. It was the company’s most profitable overseas tour in history at that point, a testament to Bulldog’s enduring appeal.

The WCW deal didn’t last, with Bulldog moving back to England at the end of 1993. He did brisk business for small domestic promotion All Star Wrestling before returning home to the WWF. His third run was not as successful as his first two, but did feature plenty of moments to savour. He renewed hostilities with Bret Hart in a classic 1995 bout, before forming a tag team with Owen Hart, brother of ‘The Hitman’. Bret would eventually join the pair to reform the Hart Foundation faction in 1997.

When Bret left the WWF for WCW in the wake of the Montreal Screwjob, Bulldog went with him. Sadly, his tenure never really got off the ground. Bulldog sustained a severe back injury after landing awkwardly on a trapdoor that had been cut into the ring to allow Ultimate Warrior to make an entrance later in the show. Smith was released from the company while recuperating, and developed a painkiller addiction as a result of the serious spinal damage he had incurred.

Bulldog’s physical prime was over, and though he did return for a brief WWF run in 1999, he physically couldn’t last. Retiring in 2000, Bulldog was training for a ring return at the time of his 2002 death. His last two matches came that same year, teaming alongside his son, Harry Smith. That son has grown up to become Davey Boy Smith Jr, a former WWE wrestler in his own right who continues his father’s amazing legacy to this day. 

It is a legacy that will always endure when wrestling in Britain is discussed. This country has produced incredible wrestlers before and since. But never has there been a mainstream superstar, a main event-level box office attraction and a larger-than-life legend to rival The British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith.

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